Monna Vanna

Alternately titled: Belcolore

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1866
Model: Alexa Wilding
Repainting: 1873


◦ Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 131, 141-142.

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 200-201.

◦ Stevens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 70-71.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol.1, 111.

The Pre-Raphaelites, Tate Exhibition Catalogue 1884, 214-215.

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 68-69.

Scholarly Commentary


The picture is one of the three or four greatest of DGR's works done after the manner of Titian, Veronese, and the other Venetian Old Masters. Like the others, it is a programmatic work, the representation of which is a figura, in the medieval sense, of art as an ideal and idealizing practice. This character of the picture is clear from DGR's description of it (in a letter of September 1866 to John Mitchell) as a “match to your more classical Venus [Verticordia]”. At that point DGR called the picture Venus Veneta, to emphasize the particular artistic vision (or style) he was trying to represent. That is to say, DGR's painting represents “the Venetian ideal of female beauty”: it is a symbol, or what Charles Peirce would call an index, of a type of artistic practice (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 66.158 ). In this respect we want to recall Veronica Veronese, which is, as the title literally says, a true image of Veronesian womanhood. In DGR's imagination, works of art ought to instantiate a unique, ideal presence. All together they reference a general transcendent order of things where these particular idealities are situated. That this is also an aesthetic order need hardly be pointed out.

These ideas about his art led DGR to rename the picture Belcolore in 1873, when he took it back for some repainting. Quoting his brother, WMR pointed out that the title “Monna Vanna had . . . a thirteenth-century sound about it, being got by Rossetti out of Dante; and he felt it to be inappropriate for so comparatively modern-looking a picture” (see WMR's commentary on the picture, which quotes DGR in extenso). The new title is a virtual label for the picture's programmatic status (“Belcolore [i.e. Fair Colour] . . . had served as a female name in Venice”).

Stephens' commentary (his remarks usually reflect DGR's own views) emphasizes the modernity of the picture, its moral equivocalness, and its Venetian character. In his view the figure is “a self-centred character revealed by every feature, lovely as these are”. The jewels and gorgeous attire all signify her modernity and worldliness, and when Stephens writes that “Her lips that have been often kissed are cherry-coloured, ripe and full, yet not warmed by inner passion, nor exalted by rapture of contemplation”, he is specifically alluding to the connection between this picture and the first of DGR's great Venetian exercises, Bocca Baciata.

Despite DGR's wishes, the painting descends to us still bearing its original title. The latter underscores the association of the picture with the beloved of Dante's friend Guido Cavalcanti, the Monna Vanna of the Vita Nuova chapter XXIV. This name means literally “Madonna Giovanna”, but there is no question that DGR means the abbreviated form to suggest the meanings “vain” and “fickle”. The word “fickle” is especially apt in this case because 1.) it is the word that DGR himself applies to Cavalcanti in his note to the Vita Nuova chapter XXIV passage; and 2.) it is the word that Stephens applies to the figure in DGR's painting. In this respect she would represent what Blake would call the Emanation of Cavalcanti, the manifest form of his ideal self and creative imagination. To rename the picture Belcolore (from Monna Vanna) is to shift the moral focus to the periphery and to emphasize the aesthetic issues at stake in the picture. In either case we are, of course, dealing with a quasi-allegorical situation.

This picture illustrates DGR's subtle and effective use of color. White and gold, colors associated with innocence and glory, here become disassociated from those spiritual valuations. We may usefully compare this picture with, say, the 1864 watercolour Morning Music, which is similarly dynamic and worldly; and then contrast both with the use of white and gold in pictures like Sancta Lilias or Ecce Ancilla Domini!. The comparisons show very clearly two important features of DGR's pictures in general: 1.) that the moral value, in a referential sense, of any pictorial element lies open to an indefinite series of variations, including variations of contradiction; 2.) that all pictorial elements, in an aesthetic sense, maintain a reference to an ideal order, no matter what the reference may be at a moral or referential level.

Production History

DGR began this picture in 1866 and was nearing completion on 27 September 1866 (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 66.158 ). At that point he offered it to John Mitchell, but the picture was eventually bought by William Blackwell. In mid-1873, after the picture had been acquired by George Rae, DGR took it back for some repainting and finished the work, as he told Madox Brown, in November (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 73. 340 ). The frame that is now with the picture was made at this time.


When the picture was first exhibited in 1883 it was a great success, according to WMR, who concurred with the popular judgment. To this day the picture is one of the most popular in the Tate Gallery's permanent collection.


The pastiche of a Venetian style functions as an iconograph of art as a practice of visionary knowledge. Implicitly the painting “reads” the history of art (in this case focussing on one particular epoch in that history) as a story of different forms of ideal vision. The moral ambiguity of the picture—the worldliness that it puts on display—is itself brought forward in an Ideal Form, i.e., in the form of a work of art.

The jewelry, fan, and sumptuous dress signal the worldliness represented through the image.


The spiral ornament in the woman's hair—one of DGR's favorite pictorial accessories in his Venetian-inspired pictures—focuses the general compositional character of the portrait, which is a webwork of dynamic and circling curves. DGR designed the jewel-piece himself.

Alastair Grieve says that the lady's “great sleeve recalls that in Raphael's portrait of ‘Giovanna of Aragon’ in the Louvre” (see The Pre-Raphaelites, Tate 1984, 136 ).

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: s191.raw.xml